Jeff Vail’s Theory of Power

June 1st, 2012 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Jeff Vail’s Theory of Power)

by Dave Pollard

Jeff Vail’s short, free online book A Theory of Power begins with a series of provocative theses:

  • The best representation of our world, of what ‘is’, is not matter, but the connections between matter.
  • These connections define ‘power-relationships’ — the ability of one entity to influence the action of another.
  • The ‘law’ of evolution can therefore be restated as: if new patterns of forces can survive their impacts with one another, if they tend to hold together rather than tear apart, they then represent a stable collection of power-relationships which survive, self-replicate, and mutate into further new patterns which are in turn subject to the same law.
  • This law applies to physical (matter), biological (gene) and cultural (meme) patterns; all matter and life and consciousness, and their evolution, are ‘creatures’ of their/our material, genetic and cultural constituents, created for the perpetuation of these patterns and sustained through their stable power-relationships.
  • Because of the evolutionary success of memes (due to their ability to adapt and change much more quickly and successfully than genes), culture has come to play an increasingly dominant role in our planet’s power-relationships.
  • Most significantly, the advent of agriculture, which was provoked by climate change (the ice ages) brought about a necessary power shift from the individual to the group in the interest of memes’ survival, to the point the individual became largely enslaved to the culture, and the survival of the civilization culture now outweighs in importance the survival of any of its members or communities.
  • A consequence of that has been the advent of the codependent cultural constructs of market and state, and, as agriculture has enabled exponential growth in population and created new scarcities, egalitarian societies of abundance have given way to hierarchical societies of managed scarcity.
  • This hierarchy has been further entrenched with the cultural evolution of technologies that enable even greater self-perpetuation of the memes that gave rise to it, and have led to the ‘efficient’ subjugation of the human individual to technology — that’s the power-relationship that most supports the survival and stasis of the culture, and under it even those at the top of the hierarchy become slave-hosts to the memes and culture.
  • These memes and culture can now self-perpetuate and thrive more effectively with technology and the artificial constructs of market and globalizations than they could with inefficient and unreliable human hosts, so technology growth is now even outstripping human growth, to the point that humans are becoming commodities and could even become redundant.
  • So: if we are now becoming slaves to the machine-powered perpetuation of memes that are outgrowing their need for us (to the point that although catastrophic global warming and human extinction now seem inevitable, this is not something our meme-culture ‘cares’ about) can we, the human slaves, thanks to the genetic and memetic evolution of self-awareness, ‘liberate’ ourselves and defeat the meme-culture before it destroys us? In other words, can we consciously, collectively take control for the first time over power-relationships, and establish new power-relationships that put the genetic survival of the human race (and, hopefully, the survival of all other life on Earth on which that genetic survival depends) ahead of the reckless survival of the Frankenstein ‘civilization’ culture we have created?

Vail’s answer to this final question is a qualified ‘yes’. He argues that the way to establish power-relationships that put our genes’ interest ahead of memes’ is to “confront hierarchy with its opposite — rhizome — a web-like structure of connected but independent nodes”, borrowing from successful models in nature of such structures. The working units (nodes) of this ‘revolutionary’ structure are self-sufficient, egalitarian communities, and the concept of ‘ownership’ in such communities is eliminated to prevent the reemergence of hierarchy.

Rhizome-based structures need to be developed and then institutionalized from the bottom up to replace hierarchical ones, Vail argues, in all areas of our society — social, political, economic, educational etc. to entrench the power and sustainability of self-sufficient communities and render them invulnerable to re-expropriation of that power by hierarchies. In practical terms, he says:

Power remains distributed to the level of the individual rhizome node through local, functional self-sufficiency—a modern equivalent to the Domestic Mode of Production. In other words, functional self-sufficiency means the ability to produce at the household level at least the minimum necessities for day-to-day existence without relying on outside agents or resources. Self-sufficiency removes the individual rhizome node from dependence on the standard set of outside suppliers. It does not eliminate exchange, but creates a situation where any exchange exists as a voluntary activity. The commodities that each node must provide for itself include staple foodstuffs, energy for heating, basic habitat and small group interaction.

Self-sufficient energy coops, and local permaculture-based food movements are examples of rhizome structures. Such networks are also the most effective means for the dissemination of information on how to make rhizome activities even more effective — they have much less signal loss than hierarchical methods that require information to flow up and then down controlled and constricted paths. Rhizomes are also, while less ‘efficient’, more effective and more resilient than hierarchies.

Next, Vail argues that, once established, to defend against attacks from vestiges of hierarchical systems, rhizome networks need to adopt asymmetrical methods — by reducing the desire of hierarchy to re-achieve power (e.g. by making it difficult or unrewarding to do so on its own terms) and by becoming ‘invisible’ to the hierarchy (e.g. dropping out quietly and not taking part in the hierarchy’s social, political and economic activities). Vail concludes:

A new vision, with individual freedom to pursue arts and spirituality, above the pettiness of bickering for power, may prove possible if we learn to control the powers that have dominated us throughout history. In the spirit of this vision, the message will ultimately fail if forced upon others. Only through personal example, by showing that a realistic and preferable alternative exists, will these concepts succeed on a large scale. We will act as pioneers, who will begin to create diverse rhizome nodes, each one representing an individual’s struggle to solve the problems of hierarchy and human ontogeny. The more we learn and break free from the control of genes and memes, the more success these pioneers will have. Effective tools and practices will spread, and the rhizome network will grow and strengthen. As this network evolves, it will provide a realistic, implementable alternative to hierarchy—an alternative that fulfills our genetic ontogeny and empowers us as individuals. Nature has shown us that the structure of the rhizome can compete with hierarchy and stratification. When combined with an understanding of reality and humanity that makes us our own masters, we may finally learn from the events of the past…and gain control of our future.

This is entirely consistent with the approach I have been arguing for — the bottom-up creation of a combination of working models of (a) self-sufficient, sustainable (probably polyamory) egalitarian intentional communities operating under Gift Economy principles, (b) natural enterprises and (c) peer-to-peer information and organization networks.

The concern many have expressed about models like Vail’s and mine is how to scale them up — how to get them to the ‘tipping point’ at which, like viruses, they start spreading quickly and supplant the old hierarchical ones. One approach Vail mentions is Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs, or ‘pirate utopias’). Bey’s zones are based on the principles of (a) 30-50 person ‘bands’ replacing families (Bey quotes Gide: “Families, how I hate them! The misers of love!”), (b) a continuous ‘festival’ culture of conviviality, abundance, sharing, celebration, and joy and (c) no private ownership.

I really like the idea of a festival culture. Bey sees the zones as temporary (nomadic, to prevent their being attacked by the prevailing hierarchical culture). Vail says they will only be needed “until the size of the rhizome network provides enough power” to sustain them.

But that’s not how viral models work in nature. They get a foothold and then replicate. Assuming we can create some successful working models without having them destroyed by fearful or envious corporatists (and though I’m perhaps naive, I don’t think the establishment would be bothered to try to destroy them when they’re below the radar screen, and after that it’s too late), how might they replicate virally?

Suppose we were to invite people to just begin. We could use Open Space invitations to find the people who are ready to create some working models of TAZs. We could facilitate Open Space sessions to let invitees form TAZ ‘tribes’, each tribe consisting of about fifteen contiguous intentional community ‘clans’ of about 100 people, with each clan having 2-3 natural enterprise ‘bands’ operating within them. Then, any clan that was so popular that it attracted new members to grow beyond the magic number of 150 people would ‘split’ into two new intentional communities (members would self-select which of the two clans to belong to), and any tribe that exceeded about 2000 people would ‘split’ into two new tribes the same way. This is the way viruses replicate, and the way that some groups of animals instinctively hive off when their membership exceeds a certain threshold. As our rhizome-culture working models became more and more popular, and the hierarchical civilization culture collapses, we would simply and organically take over. Bottom-up, a model that has evolved to work replacing one that has ceased to function. That’s life.

These sustainable, natural bands, clans and tribes would support each other through network connections, physical and technological. Each would be autonomous and self-sufficient, and evolve in its own self-determined, wonderfully diverse way.

The great challenge, of course, is finding arable land that can sustain these extraordinary experiments. One solution would be simply to wait until climate change, pandemic, economic collapse or other disasters depopulate an area to the point its land becomes free or nearly so. Another approach I’ve mentioned before is to find philanthropists willing to donate the land on a successful-efforts basis. Or, we they could start in Russia and other countries where serious depopulation has already begun.

Are you ready for this? Is the world?


Editorial Notes

Thanks to Dave Pollard for an excellent summary, as well as his thoughts on the book. We’ve run several of Jeff Vail’s articles and are interested in his theories. Although they are abstract and not easy to digest, the theories make explicit ideas that seem to be on the minds of many people.

Vail’s theory about “rhizome” structures has a lot of applications today: the permaculture movement, guerrilla warfare, the Web, the peak oil blogosphere…

The idea of rhizome social structures as an alternative to hierarchy has historical roots:

  • Communitarian anarchism, as in the works of Peter Kropotkin
  • Utopian socialism
  • A strain within libertarianism, voiced by Karl Hess.
  • Jeffersonian democracy and agrarianism (as in the works of Wendell Berry).
  • The self-sufficiency and commune movements of 60s and 70s, as well as the back-to-the-land movements of the 30s and 40s, and communal movements in the 19th century (e.g., Shakers).
  • Many traditional and peasant cultures have similar elements.

Jeff Vail’s blog is A Theory of Power.


Original Article: Energy Bulletin.


Psycho-Spiritual Breakthrough

August 11th, 2009 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Psycho-Spiritual Breakthrough)

What would you do, whether through accident or providence, stumbled on a way to radically accelerate your personal and spiritual evolution and could show others how to do the same?  Would you tell the world, shout it from the rooftops, go on a lecture circuit… OR would you keep it to yourself and spend that valuable time applying what you know to your own life to see if it actually works, then through example show others how to do the same?  This is not an easy question.  The reason is that now more than ever people need answers – practical, no-nonsense solutions to improve their condition. This is especially paramount today as the problems of the world continue to mount with no clear way out.  The question of our age is will we as a species survive our technological adolescence long enough to lay a clear pathway for humanity long-term survival in the future.  But not just survival, but learning to live in harmony with each other and the Earth and in turn spread out into the cosmos and fulfill the hopes of Utopian dreamers everywhere.


I am reminded again of one of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes called Transfigurations. where a beautiful and tender man with emerging and extraordinary abilities is rescued by the Enterprise crew. Initially he suffers from amnesia from a shipwreck in which the others traveling with him were killed.  Later we discover they were fleeing their home planet because their government wants to execute them because it fears their new abilities.  It turns out the survivor is the first of his kind to transcend to the next evolutionary phase of their species – an immortal being of light.  It’s definitely worth watching, especially it’s allegorical treatment of current society’s fears around similar themes.

So back to my original question.  What would you do?  If you decide on the first option you will join a loud and growing course of others saying the same thing, most of whom are making such claims in an effort to secure a fast buck in the spiritual marketplace. If you check out this “spiritual” bazaar you’ll find it absolutely saturated with every imaginable huckster, motivational speaker, and guru offering their own special technique that when followed will bring you instant riches and spiritual enlightenment.  It continues to astound me how the same old message gets rehashed every few years by a new person on the scene, where the public is all too willing to embrace them as if finally someone will tell them “The Secret” to it all.

But, if you indeed do have something truly valuable and that has worked miracles so far, thousands, perhaps millions of people would benefit if they knew what you knew.  And time is wasting every minute you hold on to your little secret.  But then you just happened on this little formula for rapid evolution.  You’re not sure if it will keep working.  More importantly after using your new found knowledge for a few years you discover in the long run it doesn’t produce the results you thought it did. You’re smart enough to know there are no short cuts, but you do have a way now to take the only road their is through the thick of it, but do it in a way that is vastly superior (faster) than anything that’s come before it..or so you think so far based on your experiments.

Transfigurations2What would you do? Tell the world now and possibly save the world from its misery, or keep it to yourself and see if it really works? Then if it does you can show people by your example, risking perhaps a lot of unnecessary misery in the world that could have been prevented had you spoken up sooner.

Personally I’m taking the middle ground – staying mum on any grandiose claims until I’ve had enough time to see the long-term results, while sharing what I know with those sincere and courageous seekers willing to do it for themselves.




Space Migration or Human Extinction?

March 18th, 2009 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Space Migration or Human Extinction?)

Like many people I believe the current crisis is a wake-up call for humanity.  However, unlike many of the voices dominating the discussion lately, I have come to some very different conclusions.

The dirty little secret behind many environmental movements and their followers is a deep wish to see large segments of the human population die off.  This way the the Earth can restore itself from the overpopulated human civilization that has drained it.  Ideally, these same loyal econauts see themselves as inheriting this New Earth paradise after all the unworthy people have died off.  If you think I’m making this up or exaggerating, just ask them. One prominent “visionary” (who shall go nameless) said if people don’t get with the program, they will be turned into mulch. Being an environmentalist myself, I’m not accusing all of them, just many of the louder voices currently dominating the conversation. You’ll hear all sorts of scenarios of doom, gloom, and even glee that when it’s all over, the Earth will have maybe at most a billion inhabitants left (if we’re lucky) by the end of the 21st Century.

They are right about one thing – given our current level of dirty technology, population growth and rates of resource extraction, the human game of continual growth and material abundance cannot continue much longer without a severe environmental backlash from simple resource constraints.  You can’t extract what’s no longer there.  In other words, unless we find a way to magically transform our society through advanced nanotechnology into one that is 100% regenerative, large segments of the population will die off from a lack of resources necessary to feed, house and clothe them.

The honest truth is advanced nano-enabled regenerative technology is still a distant dream, and until it’s realized, we can’t count on it.  Instead we must solve our problems now using tools already available or that can be built without requiring unforseen breakthroughs.

Clearly as long as we continue doing business within a fragile planetary ecosystem, pretty much everything we do needs to change, adapt, ephermalize, regenerate. I just hope that along with these changes, we don’t loose site of the bigger impetus which this all points – which is to continue onward, upward, outward off the planet and become a space faring species.

This is the first time in our planets evolution such a possibility is upon us. Given what’s at stake (massive ecological, economic and population collapse), it’s now or never that a strong push for space development must be made. Those talking about peak civilization and mandatory de-industrialization are a depressing, anti-evolutionary lot.

I think when real-world constraints start culling the population, radical evolutionary pressures upward will re-exert themselves. I’ve never known people to go quietly in the night, especially when bigger, better alternatives present themselves.

My fellow Lifeboat adviser Brian Wang is actively working on some very radical space propulsion designs which could reduce orbital launch costs to less than $1/Kg without the need for any new technological advances.

When billions of lives are at stake from a lack of biosphere support capacity, space migration is by far the saner choice, especially when many if not most industrial processes can be taken off world.

This way everyone wins.  The more radical elements in the environmental movement can celebrate as all the industrialized processes they hate so much move wholesale offworld.  The Earth, through tender stewardship by those choosing to stay behind, can be ushered back into a veritable garden of Eden without it requiring any devolution or death of the human species.


The 2009 quest for Edge is “What will change everything?”. There are lots of great ideas, many of them transhumanist in flavor, including indefinite lifespans and superintelligence. Below are some of my favorites:

The Limits of Reductionism in an Open Universe from Stuart Kauffman:

The evolution of the biosphere, the economy, our human culture and perhaps aspects of the abiotic world, stand partially free of physical law and are not entailed by fundamental physics. The universe is open. Many physicists now doubt the adequacy of reductionism, including Philip Anderson, and Robert Laughlin. Laughlin argues for laws of organization that need not derive from the fundamental laws of physics.

I’ll give one example – autocatalytic sets. The central point about the autocatalytic set theory is that it is a mathematical theory, not reducible to the laws of physics, even if any specific instantiation of it requires actual physical “stuff”. It is a law of organization that may play a role in the origin of life. But then it is not true that the unfolding of the universe is entirely describable by natural law. This contradicts our views since Descartes, Galileo and Newton. The unfolding of the universe seems to be partially lawless. In its place is a radically creative becoming.
The Renaissance of Global Education:

Haim Harari has this to say:

First, a technology-driven globalization is forcing us to see, to recognize and to fear the enormous knowledge gaps between different parts of the world and between segments of society within our countries. It is a major threat to everything that the world has achieved in the last 100 years, including democracy itself. Today’s world, its economy, industry, environment, agriculture, energy, health, food, military power, communications, you name it, are all driven by knowledge. The only way to fight poverty, hunger, diseases, natural catastrophes, terrorism, war, and all other evil, is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, i.e. research and education.  The time is with cheap and ubiquitous communication technology to make all the worlds knowledge available to everyone.

As someone whose spent any years teaching young people, I found Chris Anderson‘s words inspiring.

Take this simple thought experiment. Pick your favorite scientist, mathematician or cultural hero. Now imagine that instead of being born when and where they were, they had instead been born with the same in-built-but-unlocked abilities in a typical poverty-stricken village in, say, Ethiopia of 1980. Would they have made the contribution they made? Of course not. They would never have received the education and encouragement it took to achieve what they did.  Conversely, an unknown but vast number of those grinding out a living today have the potential to be world-changers… if only we could find a way of unlocking that potential.

Two ingredients might be enough to do that. Knowledge and inspiration. If you learn of ideas that could transform your life, and you feel the inspiration necessary to act on that knowledge, there’s a real chance your life will indeed be transformed. Five years ago, an amazing teacher or professor with the ability to truly catalyze the lives of his or her students could realistically hope to impact maybe 100 people each year. Today that same teacher can have their words spread on video to millions of eager students.

The realization that today’s best teachers can become global celebrities is going to boost the caliber of those who teach. For the first time in many years it’s possible to imagine ambitious, brilliant 18-year-olds putting ‘teacher’ at the top of their career choice list. Indeed the very definition of “great teacher” will expand, as numerous others outside the profession with the ability to communicate important ideas find a new incentive to make that talent available to the world.

Achieving A Type I Civilization

A lot my thinking, especially recently, has centered around how we can become a Type 1 Civilization.  Doing so means we have grown up and matured out of our technological adolescence. We’ve achieved global peace and prosperity, created a total regenerative and environmentally sustainable economy, and abundant clean energy.  It means we have learned to live in peace with ourselves and our fragile planet, and our ready to move off-world and begin colonizing the galaxy.  (See my post Healing the Planet, on some ways we might achieve this).

From Michael Shermer:

This January, 2009, in particular, finds us at a crisis tipping point both economically and environmentally. If ever we needed to look to the past to save our future it is now. In particular, we need to do two things: (1) stop the implosion of the economy and enable markets to function once again both freely and fairly, and (2) make the transition from nonrenewable fossil fuels as the primary source of our energy to renewable energy sources that will allow us to flourish into the future. Failure to make these transformations will doom us to the endless tribal political machinations and economic conflicts that have plagued civilization for millennia. We need to make the transition to Civilization 1.0.

Let me explain. In a 1964 article on searching for extraterrestrial civilizations, the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev suggested using radio telescopes to detect energy signals from other solar systems in which there might be civilizations of three levels of advancement: Type 1 can harness all of the energy of its home planet; Type 2 can harvest all of the power of its sun; and Type 3 can master the energy from its entire galaxy.

We are close. Looking from this past toward the future, we can see that the forces at work that could prevent us from reaching Civilization 1.0 are primarily political and economic, not technological. The resistance by non democratic states to turning power over to the people is considerable, especially in theocracies whose leaders would prefer we all revert to Type 0.4 chiefdoms. The opposition toward a global economy is substantial, even in the industrialized West, where economic tribalism still dominates the thinking of most people. The game-changing scientific idea is the combination of energy and economics — the development of renewable energy sources made cheap and available to everyone everywhere on the planet by allowing anyone to trade in these game-changing technologies with anyone else. That will change everything.

The Transhuman Cambrian Explosion

I think the metaphors most futurists use limit the imagination of what’s possible.  Talk of “machines” or “robots” or “artificial intelligence” simply doesn’t do the post-human universejustice.  I do like Andy Clark‘a crack at it:

But what really matters is the way we are, as a result of this tidal wave of self- re-engineering opportunity, just starting to know ourselves: not as firmly bounded biological organisms but as delightfully reconfigurable nodes in a flux of information, communication, and action. As we learn to celebrate our own potential, we will embrace ever-more-dramatic variations in bodily form and in our effective cognitive profiles. The humans of the next century will be vastly more heterogeneous, more varied along physical and cognitive dimensions, than those of the past as we deliberately engineer a new Cambrian explosion of body and mind.

A Never-Ending Childhood Through Re-establishing Brain Plasticity in Adults

From Leo Chalupa:

Several laboratories have already discovered ways to manipulate the brain in ways to make mature neurons as plastic as during early development. Such studies have been done using genetically engineered mice with either a deletion or an over-expression of specific genes known to control plasticity during normal development. Moreover, drug treatments have now been found to mimic the changes observed in these mutant mice.

In essence this means that the high degree of brain plasticity normally evident only during early development can now be made to occur throughout the life span. Imagine being able to restore the plasticity of neurons in the language centers of your brain, enabling you to learn any and all languages effortlessly and at a rapid pace. This technology could provide a powerful means to combat loss of neuronal connections, including those resulting from brain injury as well as various disease states.

I am optimistic that these treatments will be forthcoming in my lifetime. Indeed a research group in Finland is about to begin the first clinical study to assess the ability of drug treatments to restore plasticity to the visual system of adult humans.

See Alison Gopnik for more implications of this.

Beyond Governments and Markets: Fluid Social Cooperatives

New social systems have been the hope of utopian and hippie thinkers, but maturing networked communications technology could make it practical and achievable.

From Yochai Benkler:

The Great Deflation of 2008 has shown the utter dependence of human society on the possibility of well-functioning government to assure some baseline stability in human welfare and capacity to plan for the future. On the other hand, a gradual rise in volunteerism and cooperation, online and offline, is leading to a reassessment of what motivates people, and how governments, markets, and social dynamics interoperate. I expect the binary State/Market conception of the way we organize our large systems to give way to a more fluid set of systems, with greater integration of the social and commercial; as well as of the state and the social. So much of life, in so many of our societies, was structured around either market mechanisms or state bureaucracies. The emergence of new systems of social interaction will affect what we do, and where we turn for things we want to do, have, and experience.


Reality Sandwich: My Article and Other Links

March 27th, 2008 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Reality Sandwich: My Article and Other Links)

My article Super-Free Will, was just published on Reality Sandwich.

Reality Sandwich is the latest brainchild of Daniel Pinchbeck.   Other contributors  in that issue include Stanislov Grof, Erik Davis, Doughlas Rushkoff and Charles Eisenstein. So I am in great company. Some recent articles there include:

Shift Scenario: Averting Mass Extinction by Jim Fournier.

I am impressed with the level of insight, scholarship, and deep hope this article presents. Jim manages to address every aspect of our current crisis – environmental, climatic, financial, social, political, and technological in way that not only makes sense, but in way that shed new light on what’s going on and why there is a lot of reasons to be hopeful about where we are heading.

The Next Buddha Will Be Collective by Michael Bauwens.

Michael makes a compelling case of a new type of collective spirituality evolving out of our globally connected peer-to-peer culture.  This is a fascinating and hopeful perspective that makes a lot of sense when current spiritual systems are examined for their own socio-political roots.  What will this new type of spirituality be.  Charles Eisenstein, author of the new book Ascent of Humanity has some good ideas in:

The Original Religion by Charles Eisenstein. Also by Charles, Truth and Magic In The Third Dimension

Stanlislov Grof has good article on the Current Global Crisis and The Future of Humanity.

Other Recommends:

Psychosynthesis: Speaking With Molly Brown
How to move toward wholeness, integrating or synthesizing all the parts of the personality to work harmoniously together – incorporating wisdom from Buddhism, yoga, and other Eastern philosophies; Western spiritual traditions, philosophy, and psychology; and the emerging field of ecopsychology.

A Users Guide to Climate Change
The Vertical Farming Project

And this article is most ineresting:

Google and The Myceliation of Consciousness